T-Model Ford might have picked up his first guitar 20 years ago, but he's endured the blues his entire life. He was born 78 years ago as James Lewis Carter Ford in Forrest, Miss. By the age of 11, Ford was plowing fields behind a mule on his family's farm. In his teens, he worked at a local sawmill. And after long laborious days, he survived severe and sadistic beatings by his father.
Despite his violent upbringing, Ford has always had a soft spot for women. To date, Ford has been married five times and has fathered 26 children. But his passion for the opposite sex led to many bar fights in his youth, and one brawl got him convicted for murder. He was sentenced to 10 years in a chain gang.
Ford now lives with his long-time girlfriend Stella, and he's learned to take out his pain and aggression on a guitar. He's on Fat Possum Records and his albums and live act are have grown popular throughout the world. Over the past few years, Ford and his drummer Spam, with whom Ford constantly has spats, have traveled across the U.S. several times and hit clubs all over Europe and Japan. He's on tour now, supporting his latest CD She Ain't None of Your'n, and he'll be coming to town on Friday for a 10 p.m. show at Maxwell's in Hoboken. The Current caught him on the road this week to talk about his blues, his past and his favorite topic - women.
Louise Thach: How's your tour been going?
T-Model Ford: Oh, it's doing all right.
LT: Do you like being on tour?
TM: I like it all right. I be happy when I'm out here. I ain't let nothing worry me. And I'm meeting some of these ladies out here...
LT: What kind of people come to your shows?
TM: All white. I met one the other night, and she wanted me to go home with her. I told her nah, you too fine, you might have a boyfriend.
LT: Is Spam on tour with you?
TM: Nah, but I'm thinking about getting him back; I don't know. I might try to talk to him when I get back home and get him to come back, and get him to stop telling tales on me.
LT: So why did you start playing at 58?
TM: Well, I work all of my life, and I was driving log trucks and camping, and I was married. I'd take my money home and give it to my wife, and she supposed to be keeping it. And she kept it and bought me a guitar. I came in there, and she say, 'Did you see your present?' And I say, 'What present?' And she say, 'I bought you a guitar.' And I say, 'What you spending my money on something like that for? I can't learn how to play no guitar.' And she say, 'Yes you can.' And I say, 'Well, If I learn, you gonna leave me.' And she say, 'No, I'm gonna stay on with you.' About two weeks, she walked off and left me, and that's when I picked the guitar up. I guess that's what give me the blues, and I learnt.
LT: What inspires your music?
TM: When you're out there by yourself, things will cross your mind. And the more you be around women, the more blues you take. And I guess that's what happened to me. I've been a woman's man ever since I started playing the blues.
LT: Do you think you get more attention from women after you're on stage?
TM: I guess I do sometimes. But all womans like black men and everything.
LT: Have you ever been with a white woman?
TM: I met a few white ladies, friends, you know, and we made love. I be liking the woman. After I been when my first white woman, she wanted to marry me, but I'm too old to get married. I told her, 'I'm an old man. Why don't you get a young man?'
LT: Aren't you still with Stella though?
TM: Yep, she's still with me, but I ain't gonna tell here. She don't know, and I ain't gonna tell here. She stays there, and she ain't gonna quit me. Cause she don't want nobody but T-Model.
LT: So is it true that you don't know how to read or write anything?
TM: I can't read, write and spell nothing. I can't even spell what I love. I tried to, but there ain't no schooling for me. I imagine it's better though, being a man out here, that I didn't learn how to read and write, 'cause I might have been dead. Somebody might have done killed me. When you read and write, you get in trouble. You be writing letters and notes and things to some woman or she's writing to you, and the womans is funny when they go to get them notes and letters.
LT: Is it true that you dye your hair black?
TM: Yeah, I need to be a young man. Otherwise, I lose my color, and that do make me look older. I'm still a black man and my hair's black. That's the way the ladies like it. And womans like my smile too.
LT: How man women have you been with?
TM: Woo. I don't know, a hundred something. I'm gonna be with the womans 'til I get too old or I die on one.
LT: You have a lot of children. Do you ever see them?
TM: I don't know who they is. I just put them in there. They say I got 26 children, and I don't know, I might.
LT: Why didn't your first few marriages work out?
TM: Well, I didn't know too much about womans then. I really didn't know what love was. I didn't really know what to do. But I learnt later on. I was married five times and divorced them. Then I went to shacking, and I like shacking with 'em. That's the best! If you know you want 'em, you know that you got to do right to please 'em.
LT: How do you meet women?
TM: They meet me. They be talking, and telling me how nice I look to be an old man and sayin' I ain't that old. I'm a wom3n's man.
LT: Why do you call yourself T-Model Ford?
TM: A white fella give me that name when I was a young boy. I went to work for him driving a log truck. When I come in he said, 'James.' And I said, 'Yes, sir.' And he said, 'I'm gonna give you a new name. I'm going to name you T-Model Ford.' And that's all everybody know me where I was raised. They know T-Model, they don't know James.
LT: I read that you said, 'The more I drink, the better I sound.' Do you believe that?
TM: Yeah, it just sounds good.
LT: Do you drink a lot?
TM: No, I don't drink too much. I don't care too much about it until I go to play my guitar. When I go to play my guitar, I want to feel what the other folks feel. I don't get drunk. If I drink some and don't eat, I get sick. They think I'm drunk and I ain't drunk; I'm just sick. I ain't got nothing in there to put that whisky on, and it makes me sick.
LT: Did you ever do drugs?
TM: Noooo. Don't do that with no woman and nobody. I ain't never done a drug in my life. I used to smoke cigarettes, but I quit. They were hurtin' me. I've been quit about 16 years now. I feel good. I feel better than I feel when I was smokin'. I don't be sick. I'm an old man, and I still get up, and I'm ready go. I'm ready to go right now.
LT: Why do you walk with a cane?
TM: I fell and broke my hip eight years ago working on the job. And I got up, and I kept working. Later on, I found out that I knocked my hip out of place. I was a sandblaster. And the job I was workin' on, I didn't even tell nobody. I just went on workin'. They're out of business now, so I ain't trying to sue nobody. I was supposed to have been a rich black man, seein' how much I've been broke up and hurt.
LT: So you can't really walk around much?
TM: I don't do nothing now but sit around when I'm at home. I wait around for my little chick to come in, make love, pay bills and have a little money in my pocket.
LT: Are you religious?
TM: I believe there's a God, but I don't go to church though. I see people go to church, and they get back home and act the same and go out. When people goin' to church, that's the devil. You see me, I don't go to church because I don't have problems with the devil. I've got Christian here in my heart. I don't hate nobody. I don't want to hurt nobody no more, but I have hurt 'em, and I don't want to do it no more.
LT: Yeah, I read that you went to jail for murdering someone at a bar when you were younger.
TM: Yeah. It was a guy in Tennessee. Anywhere I went, and you meddle with me, you had trouble. I didn't pick no fights, but I was fight at. I didn't let nobody whoop me. I was away from home and I was a country boy; I didn't know nothing. I was with these ladies, and he kept looking over. I told the ladies to give him a glass and sit down and drink with you all. He come over there to the table looking down on me and came out with a knife. He cut me first; he stabbed me in the back. And I went and opened my switch blade knife I had in my pocket, and I had my good teeth then, and I opened it with my teeth, and I cut his throat. They took me to the chain gang the next mornin'.
LT: What was prison like?
TM: Oh, you were lonesome and couldn't do what you want to do. You had to do what they say you do. I had 10 years, but my mamma got me out on parole after two years. And I done good, and I never went back. Now when I say something to a woman, the first thing I say is, 'Are you married, or do you got a boyfriend?' If you is, I ain't coming. It made me a better man with my life. I'm not a dangerous man no more.
LT: Your father was pretty dangerous though.
TM: My father was mean to me. My father beat me about to death. He beat me in mercy.
LT: Didn't your father make you lose one of your testicles?
TM: Yeah, he cut it out. He was a mean man.
LT: How are you still alive today?
TM: Well, I guess the Lord's on my side.